Manitoba

Cost to privatize Manitoba's wildfire-fighting services under scrutiny

The Opposition NDP is casting doubt on the province's claim it will save money by handing over forest firefighting services to the private sector.

NDP alleges government will spend more, not less, ceding control of province's aerial firefighting fleet

The Manitoba New Democrats presented budget figures Monday during question period that raised concerns whether the province would save any money through its plan to privatize. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The Opposition NDP is casting doubt on the province's claim it will save money by handing over forest firefighting services to the private sector.

Leader Wab Kinew said the province entered into a 10-year, $170-million contract with Babcock, the international aerial emergency services business taking over the province's wildfire-fighting initiatives, according to the firm's website. 

The approximate $17 million annual payment from the province's pocketbook exceeds, Kinew said, the $14.8 million spent on wildfire suppression efforts in 2017-18, citing the annual report from Manitoba Sustainable Development

"Which is the greater number there?" Kinew jokingly asked during question period on Monday.

$1M saved yearly, province says

The province, however, maintains privatization will save the province a minimum $1 million a year, as it said last week while announcing the new deal.

The status quo would cost the province $19.4 million annually, which doesn't include the price tag for a new hangar and Bird Dog aircraft, among other expenditures.

The budget line in the annual report simply doesn't account for every dollar spent on the service, the province said in explaining the discrepancy. 

"Our government made clear from the beginning that this would only go to tender if the present standard was met and if costs were lower than what is currently being offered," said a statement attributed to infrastructure minister Ron Schuler. "We can say that both of those requirements were met."

$16.8 million was budgeted for 2017-18 firefighting efforts; Sustainable Development cited vacancies and reduced Air Services costs, though it was also a moderate year for fires. 

For transparency, Kinew said the province should simply release the terms of the contract.

"If there's something else at work here, fine, let Manitobans know," Kinew said.

The province has chosen to keep the document under wraps until it makes a decision on a request to proposals that could privatize Lifeflight air ambulance and general transport services. 

Manitoba's aerial fire suppression service will fall under the watch of Babcock beginning next year. (Manitoba Conservation Officers Association/Facebook)

Under the terms that have been revealed, the government is retaining ownership of seven active water bombers and leasing them to Babcock Canada, which will operate them.

The fleet will be supported by three Babcock Twin Commander aircraft, the company said in a news release.

52 jobs hang in the air

The new arrangement puts 52 jobs at risk, said the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, though the government is under the impression the company wants to hire back some provincial staff, Schuler said last week.

The changes will take effect in the spring.

Accessing Babcock's planes will save the province hundreds of millions by eliminating the need to replace the provincial fleet, Schuler said.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont is concerned the province's firefighting assets will be spread thin in the new model.

"It's just as ideological to believe the private sector can always do things better as it is to think the public sector can always do things better," he said, "When it comes to safety and emergency services, we have to have the resources there."

The provincial government said last week the aircraft would prioritize the needs of Manitoba first. 

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from Sean Kavanagh

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